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HomeSportsBaseballBaseball Legend Denny McLain Talks Baseball, Life

Baseball Legend Denny McLain Talks Baseball, Life

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SPRING HILL — He turned 80 in late March and the legs that once made him the best baseball pitcher on the planet for a split second are starting to fail him.

He is hunched over and looks like he’s closer to 5-foot-7 than to the 6-foot-1 frame that carried him to the top of the baseball world so many years ago. Oh, and he’s carrying something like 150 to 200 pounds more than when he weighed 185 in that magical summer and fall of 1968. And the baggage he carries from before, during and after his playing career has to weigh heavily.

But, somehow, Denny McLain hasn’t lost his fastball.

He’s mentally sharp. He’s witty and philosophical and, as long as his legs allow, he’s the walking answer to a multitude of trivia questions:

+ Who was the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season?

+ Who’s the only two-time Cy Young award winner (as the best pitcher in baseball) to record two record albums as an organist?

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+ Who, along with Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, was so dominant that he prompted Major League Baseball to make several rules changes to level the playing field so that 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher” could never happen again?

+ Who’s the only American league pitcher ever to pilot an airplane out of Detroit to Washington, pitch an inning in the All-Star Game and, then, fly himself back home?

+ Oh, and who’s the only Cy Young winner ever to go to prison? Twice?

The answer to all of them is McLain. He’s led a complicated life. A life in which McLain has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. And, somehow, he’s still around to talk about it and nothing is out of bounds. He’ll talk at length about the good and the bad

“I’ve had a great life,” McLain said from his home in Michigan last week. “No regrets. I’ve done many more things than I ever imagined. I’m angry that some of the very old stuff comes back as all that people remember and it hurts me that it hurts my family. But I know the truth about what happened. It may not all be pretty, but I can live with it because I know the truth and not everyone else does. But it all happened so long ago that it seems to me like another lifetime.”

McLain had been scheduled to come to Spring Hill to sign autographs at the Nature Coast Sports Card, Memorabilia and Collectibles Show at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church on Saturday and Sunday. But, at the last minute, a doctor ordered McLain to cancel the trip. McLain experienced breathing problems at his home in Brighton, Mich. on Tuesday. Although he said he was feeling better by Wednesday, his doctor sent him for tests at a Detroit Hospital on Thursday.

As he waited for results late Thursday afternoon, McLain said he hopes to get to Spring Hill for a future show.

Yes, that’s vintage McLain. His life story is all about ups and downs and bouncing back.

McLain, who invariably answers his cell phone on the first ring and does his own driving on long-distance road tips, still loves to talk in the same brash way that made him equally famous and infamous.

McLain’s baseball career has been over since 1972, when more than 200 cortisone shots ruined an enoromously talented right arm. Three suspensions for reasons ranging from dumping water on a couple of Detroit writers to allged involvement in a gambling ring also played a role in cutting his career short.

Life after baseball wasn’t easy. But McLain still is an enterainer at heart. Spring Hill resident Bob Woodward, the event planner for shows in Spring Hill and New Port Richey first met McLain at a card show in Venice in February and was impressed by what he saw.

At most sports card shows, famous athletes come in and sign autographs for an hour or so. Many of them refuse to engage their fans in conversation But McLain, who has been diffent in so many ways, really is different.

At a show in Venice in late February, McLain arrived during early setup time the night before the show. He mingled with card dealers and told endless stories, including the one about him throwing a softball pitch to help Mickey Mantle move into third place on the all-time home run list at the time of his retirement. It seemed obvious McLain had no interest in sitting alone in his hotel room.

When the show took place the next two days, McLain didn’t just sign autographs. He took the time to speak — at length — to anyone about just about anything. After all, McLain has unique and fascinating stories about life in baseball and life in prison.

A huge part of his legacy always will center around his 31-6 record in 1968. That came 34 years after the previous last pitcher to win 30 games. Since then, no pitcher has even approached 30 wins in a season. In the modern baseball world, it’s a major accomplishment for a pitcher to win 20 games. For perspective, last season’s American and National League Cy Young Award winners (Gerrit Cole of the Yankees and Blake Snell of the Patries) combined for 29 wins. Since the start of the 2017 season, only three pitchers have won 20 games in a season and none have surpassed 20 wins.

“I was pitching every fourth day,” McLain said. “Now, pitchers are throwing every five or six days.”

“Dennis set a record that never will be touched,” former Detroit outfielder Willie Horton sad. “It’s a shame that his career didn’t last longer and that he didn’t take better care of himself. He could have been the best pitcher ever with just a little bit of effort. He was a great teammate and I loved playing with him. He was dominant in ’68 and ’69. In fact, he may have been even better in ’69. It’s too bad it didn’t last. Thirty wins seems impossible now, but it seemed impossible then because nobody had done it in so long.”

And it ended quickly and painfully. Arm troubles and off-field issues unraveled McLain’s career. In 1970, he lost a league-worst 22 games. He did stints with the Washington Senators and Atlanta Braves after leaving Detroit. Just four years after the record-setting season, McLain was out of baseball.

But he was in the news. For all the wrong reasons. He went to prison twice — once on charges of embezzlement, racketeering and cocaine trafficing and once for on charges of embezzlement and mail fraud related to the disappearance of $2.5 million from the employee pension fund of a company McLain owned with a partner. His conviction on the first charges later was overturned.

McLain doesn’t run from his past. He talks openly about it, but realizes his his story isn’t complete without mention of his legal woes.

McLain said what he went through then was nothing compared to the pain he felt when his wife, Sharyn, died three years ago.

“I had to have psychiatric care,” McLain said. “Thank God, my daughter recognized my depression and made sure I got treatment. I realize now that mental health is a very serious thing. People need to realize that there is help out there.”

McLain said part of his continuing therapy is appearing at card shows around the country throughout the year.

“I enjoy the shows,” McLain said. “I enjoy talking to people, especially the kids.”

McLain’s presence is yet another step in the evolution of the wildly successful Nature Coast Sports Card, Memorabilia and Collectibles show. The first Spring Hill show was held a little over a year ago and this will mark the ninth Spring Hill show.

“There was a void in the hobby in Hernando County,” Woodward said. “There already were a lot of collectors in the area, but there weren’t any shows. Plus, the show has gotten a lot of Hernando County people into the hobby. We’ve been drawing dealers and collectors from all around the Bay Area and we even get dealers and collectors from out of state.”

Woodward put together a show at Fivay High School in March and McLain was the featured guest. The event raised more than $4,000 for Fivay’s Class of 2024.

“I love going to these shows and telling stories about my baseball days because it fits my personality,” McLain said. “We were a bunch of lunatics in those days. But good lunatics that had a lot of fun.”

McLain throws out the first pitch on July 11, 2012, at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park in Charleston, South Carolina. CC 2.0 , Ron Cogswell/ Wikipedia
McLain throws out the first pitch on July 11, 2012, at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park in Charleston, South Carolina. CC 2.0 , Ron Cogswell/ Wikipedia

Patrick Yasinskas
Patrick Yasinskas
I am a sportswriter with more than 30 years' experience covering sports on all levels. I started out covering high schools, but have covered the NFL since 1993. I have won numerous awards, covered more than 20 Super Bowls and have been a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter three times. I began my career covering high school sports in Hernando County, which remains near and dear to me, for The Tampa Tribune from 1990 through 1992.
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